How childhood cancer saved my marriage

When tragedy strikes it’s like you’re under a magnifying glass—especially your marriage. All the little problems, dislikes and concerns you have about your spouse get enormous, loud and ugly. They consume your thoughts, sit heavily in your chest and cause doubt, anger and fear. If left untouched, they will win and your marriage will be in jeopardy.

The confusing part was that my husband and I were AWESOME in the midst of tragedy.  Losing out first son was like a train hitting us, but we still had each other and our dreams to follow. The illness of our next born daughter gave us a taste of hospital life with a sick child, a touch of how to juggle life when the rest of the world keeps moving along.

After the diagnosis of a deadly brain tumor in our next baby boy, we fought side-by-side for him like our lives (not our marriage) depended on it.

We were focused on the map of treatment, we never disagreed on medical decisions and we could finish each other’s sentences.  We were praised by his care team for our quality of care and love for our child.  Who knew that doing just that for over a year would tear our marriage apart?

At the end of our son’s treatment, and while the rest of the world was celebrating the health of our amazing children, we stopped dreaming and we were terrified of the future. We were broken, and I hurt in ways I’d never felt before.

Life had lost its purpose. I had witnessed horrific things while fighting for my child’s life, things that give you nightmares and haunt you.  I couldn’t think about “next week” in fear that it wouldn’t exist, and I couldn’t shop for children’s clothes the next size up.  I couldn’t daydream about milestones, let alone “happily ever after.”

But there is good news.  Even if you handle tragic events terribly in your marriage, make mistakes, go through three therapists and three separations in five years, say hurtful things, don’t say things at all and stop looking into each other eyes like we did, you can still save your marriage.

The magic key for us wasn’t magical at all. We had to strip away all the hurt, anger, resentment and ask ourselves what it was we really wanted out of the life we were given. This was not an easy thing to do.

It was much easier to feel fear, anger, frustration because life was throwing us some hard curve balls. But, when we made ourselves take the time to mentally and emotionally reflect (I mean “block it on the calendar” kind of time), we discovered we still wanted the same things: we wanted to feel love and to give love.

We didn’t want to introduce someone new in our lives (I don’t think anyone could replace the man who held me through the still birth of our child). We didn’t want to be a broken family; we wanted to be whole again. We wanted to love each other more than we wanted to hate each other.  It was that simple—even though at times it was harder than helping our child fight cancer.

Once we made the decision to stay together, each step felt purposeful. The healthy place we wanted to get to was in sight and it was worth it. We were worth it. It was bumpy but it was our path and it was wonderful.

They say it’s easier to appreciate the light if you’ve seen the dark. They say that when you fall to the very bottom, the only way out is up. They also say that when you experience true love, the kind that doesn’t have trumpets and sparkles and unicorns, you will feel life’s beautiful purpose. Okay, I said that last one, but I do believe all of these things.

Our son’s cancer journey is still with us and it saved our marriage. It is a gift that has taught us what is worth fighting for and keeps us living in the present.

Marriage is rarely what you think it will be. No matter how hard you try to imagine it, study it and take classes to prepare for it, it’s not what you think it will be.  Marriage dreams, breathes, teaches and grows and it can surprise you, heal you and be the best part of you, if you let it.

Written by Mindy Dykes
Mindy is the mother of 8-year-old Connor, who is a brain tumor survivor.